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A young eastern phoebe.WilliamSherman/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

People are finding hope in all sorts of things these days, from the rising vaccination rate to the flowering of the lilacs. For me, it’s the presence of a dingy little bird.

The eastern phoebe isn’t a striking creature like the goldfinches, orioles or indigo buntings that brighten parks and backyards in springtime. With a greyish, brownish back and dull white breast, it falls into the category known to birdwatchers as LBJ: little brown job.

It lacks distinct wing bars, eye rings or other obvious markings. Its raspy fee-bee can’t rival the musical song of the cardinal or the grosbeak. But the phoebe stands out in other ways.

It is one of the first songbirds to arrive in the spring, a welcome herald of the season. A member of the flycatcher family, it is believed to be the first bird ever banded. John James Audubon himself banded one. The Audubon Field Guide says that the renowned naturalist “marked one with a silver wire on its leg in 1840 and recorded its return the following year.”

Which leads us to its most remarkable trait: the way many of its kind come back to nest in the same place. After wintering in Mexico or the southern United States, it somehow finds its way back to its favourite spot, usually on a human-made structure such as a bridge, barn, culvert or garage.

For years phoebes built a nest on the back of our garden shed. Though there was only a thin lip of plywood to support it, they managed to make it stick to the wall just under the eaves, a miracle of avian engineering. When we added a second, bigger shed, they traded up. Now they construct their nest on a small crossbeam under the roof, where it is protected from the elements and out of the reach of egg-stealing raccoons.

When I say “they” I mean “she.” The female builds solo. She collects mud for her mortar, adds leaves and moss, then lines the nest with grass and animal hair. The result is a comfortable cup two inches deep.

This year’s is already built. The female sits there brooding her eggs, only her long tail or her head visible. If I visit the shed on some chore, she swoops stealthily out, then gives me the evil eye from a nearby branch, clearly unhappy at the intrusion.

When the eggs hatch, which should be soon, she and her mate will shuttle back and forth all day to feed their young. Sometimes, hoping to scare me off, they take a run at me, diving down from their perch and turning away only at the last second. Then the fledglings will take their first, hesitant flight and leave the nest for good.

This annual routine fills me with wonder. Flying alone, with no flock for company or guidance, these unassuming birds fly hundreds, even thousands of kilometres to reach our shed.

What is more, they do it generation after generation. The oldest known phoebe lived just 10 years. Ours have been returning for at least 20, so our current phoebes may be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of our originals.

How they accomplish this is one of nature’s marvels. Science has advanced since Audubon’s silver wire, so we are learning more about how and where birds migrate. Thanks to miniature tracking devices, we know that birds of all sizes are capable of covering vast distances, sometimes travelling for days on end without stopping.

As the science writer Scott Weidensaul puts it in his new book, A World on the Wing, instinct pushes “not just powerful birds of prey but even the tiniest and seemingly most fragile warbler to cross immensities of space with a speed and physical tenacity that beggars human imagination.”

One champion migrant, the graceful arctic tern, travels quite literally to the opposite ends of the Earth, flying up to 90,000 kilometres a year. Another, the bar-tailed godwit, travels south from Alaska to New Zealand or Australia, then north again to Alaska by way of East Asia.

Birds use a variety of navigational aids to guide their voyage, from topographical features such as mountains and coasts below to the stars and the sun above. They can smell the “odour landscapes” they cross, in effect sniffing their way home. They can read the Earth’s magnetic field. Some can even nap as they fly, fending off mental exhaustion by shutting down one hemisphere of the brain and switching to the other.

The blackpoll warbler, which weighs about as much as a single AAA battery, manages a 90-hour hop over the Atlantic without stopping. In Toronto, where I live, it could be glimpsed in the woods by the lake this week as it paused to fuel up on bugs before proceeding to the boreal forest to breed. Another notable traveller, the whimbrel, a shorebird with a long, curving bill, was passing over the lake on its way to the far north. Birdwatchers on a lakefront promontory oohed and ahhed as flocks came scudding briefly into sight, only to disappear into the distance.

The flight of the phoebes up through North America is not as dramatic as that. But when I see them flitting back and forth to the shed for the first time in spring, it lifts my heart all the same – never more than this year, when everything else is out of kilter.

Other rituals may have been disrupted and routines abandoned, but the phoebes carry on, a small but powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal. Every year I worry they won’t come back; every year they do. They came back last year and the year before and the year before that. They came back this year, plague or not. And they will come back again next spring, when better days are here.

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